The vast chasm between the terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are grammatically baffling but socially acceptable. You’d never wander over and refer to Joel Roubouson as a ‘cook’, simply because the finesse, skill and talent it has taken him to rise to the position of ‘Chef of the Century’ earns him a certain status and the respect that befits it. Why then do people have such trouble understanding the similar differentiation between bartenders and mixologists? True, there are many excellent bartenders, those who will mix you a perfect drink every time and serve it up with their own signature flourish but to enter the arena of mixology, like in the elite culinary world, it takes so much more.
There has been some debate as to whether the term itself is too pretentious and evocative of the modern generation, lending a sterile, scientific air to the matter and that ‘bartender’ is much more humanising and in line with the experience of taking care of a guest - something most of them do a lot of after the fourth drink. On the contrary, the term has been around since the 1800s and went through evolutions like “mixologist of tipulars” and more alarmingly “mixologists of fluid excitements.” Thankfully, most simplified the term down to just “mixologist” and since then, the term has stuck.
In India, you’re more likely to come across the term being misused simply because we’re still in the infant stages of the movement. It’s true that eating culture in India has taken huge leaps in the last few years, whether it’s sustainable eating or the rediscovery of traditional flavours, Indian consumers have become more conscious of what they’re putting in their mouths, and the alcohol industry has been on board for the ride.
According to Aneesh Bhasin, renowned lifestyle writer and founder of alcohol-centric consumer platform Hipcask, the rise of mixology can be tied back in a big way to the food we’re choosing to eat. “It’s all evolved from the gourmet food trends, people started becoming more aware of what they were consuming. But more than that, there have just been so many more opportunities in the form of workshops and programs for budding bartenders.” This assertion is echoed by others across the country, for example Kevin Dias, mixologist at elite drinking destination Cin Cin and the man behind Hakkasan’s innovative cocktails adds, “The Indian public have been travelling more, tasting the innovative flavours that are available abroad and expect India to catch up.”
That being said, bartenders and mixologists were still obligated to take into account the Indian palate. It’s not that consumers were suddenly more sophisticated and craving old-school favourites like a Manhattan or a Negroni. Over time they’d been bombarded with so many ‘cocktails’ that were 90% sugar syrup, a smattering of alcohol and a barrage of decorative mint that it would take time to steer them towards the finesse of a true cocktail. This is where ‘Indianised’ cocktails came to the rescue. Behind the bar at The Bombay Canteen or O Pedro is the best place to explore this trend and speaking to head mixologist Raul Raghav and owner Yash Bhanage of The Bombay Canteen, they begin to shed some light on the fascination with local flavours.
“Customers like the familiarity of flavours. It ties in perfectly with Bombay Canteen’s local eating ethos, and it gives us a chance to explore more diverse cocktails,” says Yash. “We offer unusual combinations like cocktails with Tirphal (Goa-sourced szechuan-style peppercorns) and we’re working on vegetable-based cocktails with things like beetroot, carrots and rosemary. People are becoming more open to trying these things,” adds Raul.
Mitali Dandekar, a national-level finalist in the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition believes that this is what gives the country’s bartenders a unique edge over the rest of the world. “With a whole gamut of spices and locally procured ingredients forming the backbone of Indian cuisine across the country, there’s no reason why equally balanced and exciting combinations can’t be recreated in cocktails. From saffron, kokum, tea, and even local spirits like feni, I think it’s wonderful that the mixologists of India are capitalising on our culinary heritage and infusing it into great tasting cocktails.”
This is, however, a slippery slope for many because ‘too experimental’ is most definitely a thing in mixology and drawing the line between adventurous and obnoxious is key. Aneesh commends the efforts of the pioneers, but since so many have tried to buy into the trend later, there have been a lot of places that don’t quite hit the mark. At all. In the end, he puts the success of the Indian cocktail down to the human experience, saying, “It’s very much based on what people grew up with. They don’t necessarily want the traditional cocktails, it’s not like they have happy memories related to Pina Coladas, they like to experiment.”
Even though this shift away from the elitism of the cocktail may seem counter-intuitive to the exclusivity of the craft, it is, in fact, a change embraced wholeheartedly by most in the business. There was a point where going out for a cocktail would set you back by Rs. 1,000, if not more. But with the rising of bars like Social aimed at a younger audience, the cocktail trend is on the rise again but now it’s accessible and affordable for everyone, and even though many mixologists feel like the quality of their cocktails could do with a bit of work, it’s a wonderful way to initiate people into the concept.
Given this tremendous demand, you have to wonder what challenges come with supplying people with quality, exotic experiences. The answer: innumerable. From the availability of ingredients to the lack of standardised bar equipment, every aspect is somewhat subpar and Indian bartenders and mixologists have had to make do for years. Kevin Dias has his own solution to this issue and has taken to making the more elusive liqueurs in-house and today his limoncello sour is a favourite among patrons. He’s also experimenting with the molecular element of mixology and is making his own sodas, infusing elements using the sous-vide machine and adding subtlety with the smoke gun.
So people are making do, but where do we need to begin to actually solve a problem that we just discovered we had. Veteran bar specialist and bespoke bitters artisan, Valentine Barboza rues that the very foundation of Indian mixology itself is unstable. “If you can use a shaker, they call you a bartender. They use overripe limes, mint with stems that make it bitter and can’t even construct a good syrup. Patrons are uninformed and owners have no finesse.”
There is much truth in this, as we’ve still got a long way to go before our arena matches that of fine-dining hubs like New York and London, but now that we’re aware of the problem, perhaps there will be a shift towards rectifying it. But it’s not just the old-timers that lament the loss of the classics, even new guys on the block like The Bandra Project bartender, Rohan Vagale, feel that with the rising popularity of experimental cocktails, there needs to be a balance. “You always need to know the basic combinations, that’s how you can develop the skill to grow more.”
This fix can only come in the form of growth, both in the industry and in the number of people taking a vested interest in the craft. From each of the mixologists we spoke with comes the same advice – ‘Know your basics.’ Mixology can look glamorous from the outside but more often than not, it’s a lot of squeezing limes. Kevin Dias recommends studying up on Harry Johnson’s texts, which though published in the 1880’s still help build the foundation of mixology.
“Go talk to your bartender’s, when you go to a restaurant make it a point to sit at the bar and learn all you can,” advises Aneesh. Bringing mixology up to scratch in India is going to be a collective effort. Bartender’s, mixologists, suppliers and even consumers need to be actively aware of the many possibilities that lie ahead and the long way we still have to go. So next time you order up an ice-slushy of a mojito, stop and consider the world of better options you could explore instead.
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